Charity begins at home, they say. Take care of those nearby, and then turn outwards.
This a problem for the National Football League.
We’re told that Super Bowl 50 — alas, no Roman numerals this year, the “L” just wasn’t portentous enough — will be “the most philanthropic and giving Super Bowl ever.” The 50 Fund, a philanthropic initiative of the San Francisco-area host committee, promises “to help close the opportunity gap that exists for Bay area children, youth and young adults living in low-income communities.” The fund says it will give 50 nonprofits a combined $12 million in grants. The NFL, which was itself registered as a nonprofit until last year, stands to take in $620 million from the Super Bowl, according to Forbes.
Charity has long been part of the NFL’s messaging. The NFL Foundation (formerly NFL Charities) says its mission is — get this — “to support the health, safety and wellness of athletes, youth football and the communities which support our game.” [Emphasis added]
As for the health, safety and wellness of NFL players and former NFL players, well, the league would prefer that we not think about that.
Thanks to The New York Times, though, it’s been hard this past week not to think about the health, safety and wellness of the players in the NFL. The Times, which broke the story of the NFL’s concussion crisis in 2007 after the suicide of Andre Waters, has never let go, to its great credit. Last week’s coverage was exemplary.
If you’re not a football fan, you may have missed a powerful story about Ken “The Snake” Stabler, the former Oakland Raiders quarterback and a hero of Super Bowl XI, who died in July. Stabler last week became the seventh former NFL quarterback diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease, by Boston University CTE researchers. The researchers have found CTE in 90 of the 94 former N.F.L. players they have examined. “He was robbed of the last 15 years of his life,” said Kim Bush, Stabler’s longtime companion, in this emotional video. If you’re planning to watch the Super Bowl, please take a few minutes to watch this, too.
In a Times op-ed, George D. Lundberg, the former editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association, wrote that
despite its colossal cultural and economic success, the N.F.L. is in deep trouble, and can’t seem to find a way out. The still accumulating evidence of brain-damaged former players … is a huge legal liability. The failure of the league to take effective actions to protect the brains of current players puts it into willful-negligence territory. Other than increasing some on-field penalties, the league has done almost nothing to protect players now or in the future. And the sports media are mostly shills paid by the networks to entertain audiences and please the league, with little interest in using their pulpit for the cause of player safety.
In another story, the newspaper reported that Willie Wood, who starred in the first Super Bowl, has no recollection of the game or of his stellar career with the Green Bay Packers. The Times also interviewed Bob Carmichael, a former college player and executive at NFL Films, who left the league’s employ to make a PBS film about violence in the NFL many years ago. Will he watch Sunday’s game, he was asked? “I don’t know how to reconcile this game with modern times,” he replied. “I know too much. I can’t.”
I’ll be watching, uncomfortably.
A bit of background: Baseball has been and always will be my favorite sport, but I enjoyed football for many years. I co-authored a book back in the 1980s about ABC’s Monday Night Football, the prime-time TV extravaganza that modernized the way sports is presented on television. The title sequence for Monday Night Football for years included an animation of two helmets butting together and exploding. Oops. Frank Gifford, the longtime play-by-play man on the broadcast and former New York Giant star, had CTE, his family revealed in November.
I followed the concussion story closely from the beginning, appalled but not surprised at how the NFL initially sought to discredit its critics and deny the connections between football and brain disease. Meantime, the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, supplied a steady stream of other reasons to dislike the league – its mishandling of girlfriend-beater Ray Rice and child-abuser Adrian Peterson, its sucking at the public trough any time a team owner wants to build a new stadium, the wage theft from the cheerleaders, the Thursday night games that further endanger players’ health.
In 2012, I decided that enough was enough. I stopped watching football and explained why in a long blogpost headlined Why I’m Done With Football. The first obligation of any business, I noted, is to keep its workers safe. The NFL fails that test. Like tobacco, the NFL is a product that, when used as intended, kills people. Watching NFL players destroy their future so that fans can be entertained and sponsors can sell beers and cars didn’t seem right anymore.
I expected to miss football. I haven’t. Until now, I have made a once-a-year exception because I’ve hosted a Super Bowl party for family and friends and didn’t want to end that tradition. But I have a feeling this will be my last Super Bowl party.
I’m not here to preach, or to tell you what to do. Today’s NFL players, unlike their predecessors, understand the risks of their jobs. Still, I wonder: Why do caring, thoughtful people who worry about working conditions in coal mines in West Virginia and garment factories in Bangladesh, or lament the plight of workers at Walmart continue to watch the NFL?
And please forgive me for not cheering “the most philanthropic and giving Super Bowl ever.”